State audit finds Amherst school administrator licensing lapsed for years 

  • Amherst School Superintendent Michael Morris speaks Monday during a special Amherst Town Meeting held for a revote of the proposed 67.2 million school project. It failed again.

Staff Writer
Published: 7/27/2018 11:12:46 PM

AMHERST — A state review of licenses for principals and assistant principals hired by the Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools finds that the district has not been in full compliance with licensing requirements for the administrators it employs, a practice that continued over several years.

“Our findings indicate a past lack of full compliance with these requirements, which help to ensure that the educators in our public schools are appropriately qualified,” Jeffrey C. Riley, the state’s elementary and secondary education commissioner, wrote in a letter sent to Amherst-Pelham School Superintendent Michael Morris Wednesday.

While the review by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education found that many of the lapses stemmed from the tenure of former superintendent Maria Geryk, who left the district in August 2016, the problems continued under Morris when he was named interim superintendent.

Superintendents, Riley wrote, “whether serving in an acting, interim or permanent capacity, are always responsible for ensuring that their staff are properly licensed or have received appropriate waivers.”

Morris said Friday that he appreciates the communication from Riley and that Doreen Cunningham, assistant superintendent of diversity, equity and human resources, is identifying where problems exist with administrative licenses and correcting them.

“The good news is we’ve resolved all the issues cited,” Morris said. “The DESE letter was an accurate reflection of the issues we’ve had with licensure.”

The assistant principal positions at Wildwood School and Crocker Farm School, previously held by Yaldira Brown and Sharri Conklin, must still be filled prior to the school year. Morris said those being interviewed for the interim one-year positions will have licenses. This would meet one of four action steps state education officials are requiring the district to take.

“The only people being interviewed are ones with appropriate licenses,” Morris said.

The state is also requiring the district to take the following actions:

Provide the results of a districtwide licensure review by Oct. 1, 2018;

Demonstrate that job postings for any positions are in at least two places if the district intends to seek a hardship waiver for administrative positions, and;

Provide supporting documents and an accompanying letter signed by Morris and the chairperson of the appropriate school committee when hardship waivers are sought.

Question raised

The issue of administrators being unlicensed was raised this spring by Christine Harmon, a parent of three children who served on a search panel for the middle school principal. Harmon spoke out when finalists the committee recommended, including an African-American man and Latina woman, were passed over and Morris intended to reappoint Patrica Bode, who was working under a waiver.

Harmon said in an email that she is pleased to see how the licensing issue has been addressed.

“I commend the changes that Superintendent Morris has implemented under the leadership of Doreen Cunningham over the last few months, and I have full confidence that going forward the foundation for equitable hiring is in place and these issues will not arise again,” Harmon said.

During an earlier audit conducted following Harmon’s complaint, other issues were identified, including that SchoolSpring, the application software the district has used in the hiring process, has sometimes collected incorrect information about applicants and whether they are qualified. This has prompted the district to seek waivers on behalf of those educators, which are typically granted, but usually only when there is an unsuccessful search for a qualified, licensed candidate.

Morris said Cunningham has built in a system to ensure that applicants being interviewed during the hiring process have licenses. She also is conducting intensive training and education surrounding relicensing so licenses don’t lapse, and is working with the information services department to collect accurate information.

“When people need to be relicensed, we’ll be much more active on the compliance end, which will prevent people from lapsing,” Morris said.

After being hired in July 2017, Cunningham completed an audit of licenses and informed unlicensed administrators of their need to obtain licensure. She implemented a policy that calls for the reposting of positions held by administrators serving in a position on waivers. Any unlicensed administrator would have to meet six progress points to request another waiver under that policy.

Greater transparency

Regional School Committee Chairman Eric Nakajima said he is confident that the leadership team is strengthening these processes.

“The letter makes clear that the status quo that existed, prior to the spring around licenses was, in fact, out of compliance with the expectations of DESE,” Nakajima said.

Follow-up reports on licensing will be fully transparent, Nakajima said, and discussed at meetings this fall. That is especially important, he said, as the hiring of administrators is tied into the broader concerns in the community about whether the schools are adequately embracing the diversity of its student body by having an equally diverse staff and administrative team.

Amherst School Committee Chairwoman Anastasia Ordonez said Morris and Cunningham have taken the problems seriously and worked hard to get the district into compliance with state law.

“We expect to see regular updates on the protocols they have set up,” Ordonez said.

Having licensed administrators, Ordonez said, is one of the factors in having a quality education for all children.

The administrators who are in place this fall will all be licensed, Morris said.

State of licensing

At the high school, Principal Mark Jackson, whose initial license lapsed, was relicensed May 31.

Talib Sadiq, formerly a middle school guidance counselor, is a new assistant principal and has a license. Sadiq replaces Ericka Alschuler, who worked for the past school year under a waiver and is now a school counselor.

At the middle school, both new co-principals, Joseph Smith and Rebecca Sweetman, are licensed. They replace Bode and interim part-time co-assistant principals David Ranen and Alicia Lopez, both of whom were unlicensed and had worked under waivers.

At Wildwood School, Principal Nicholas Yaffe, whose initial license lapsed, was relicensed May 31.

At Fort River School, new Assistant Principal Renee Greenfield has obtained a license.

Four principals — Derek Shea at Crocker Farm School, Diane Chamberlain at Fort River, David Slovin at Summit Academy and Lisa Desjarlais at Pelham Elementary — and the other high school assistant principal, Miki Gromacki, all were properly licensed and remain licensed.

Going into the new school year, Morris said he has a high level of trust that the administrators will serve students well and that staff will be comfortable with them, noting that staff representatives are involved in the interview processes for administrators and staff members are having an opportunity to interact with them this summer.

Morris credited the state agency for its support and consultation during the review.

“DESE has been easy to work with and really supportive of improving our systems and our compliance,” Morris said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at
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